Think folk music means a wailing old geezer with a banjo? Think again.
This weekend, the Northwest Folklife Festival at the Seattle Center will celebrate its 40th year. The family friendly, indoor/outdoor celebration is redefining “folk,” with indie rock, kiddie rock, Bulgarian crafts and West African dance just part of the lineup.
“Since we began in 1972, we’ve tried to show what people are playing in the Northwest,” explains Folklife’s marketing manager Tara Cunningham. “We want to be representative of everyone in this region.”
With 25 stages offering performances during four days, the festival is definitely bursting at the seams with both old traditions and new sounds. To celebrate Folklife’s 40th birthday, a show Saturday afternoon (2 p.m. Charlotte Martin Theater) brings in a powwow drum blessing, Washington fiddle music, Scandinavian music, the West African Gansango Dance Company, a Croatian men’s a cappella vocal group and a Bhangra-and-Bollywood dance finale.
The festival is offering a focus on Bulgarian folk this year, honoring the local Bulgarian community with workshops in Bulgarian singing, bagpiping and dance (2 p.m. Saturday, Olympic Room), an evening of brass bands such as the Bucharest Drinking Room (7 p.m. Saturday, Vera Project), Bulgarian women’s singing (3 p.m. Sunday, Bagley Wright Theatre) and a Balkan dance extravaganza (6 p.m. Sunday, Center House Court). Kids can learn how to make martenitsi, the red-and-white yarn tokens Bulgarians give each spring to grant health and happiness.
But Folklife goes way beyond Bulgaria, bringing its usual array of folk music, dance and storytelling from around the world. The full schedule can be downloaded as an iPhone or Android app from www.nwfolklife.org. But half the fun of Folklife lies in wandering the Seattle Center and finding unexpected pockets of culture scattered around the outdoor stages and indoor theaters. There’s bluegrass, Latin, Celtic, blues, Americana, East Indian folk dance, Kurdish song, Indian dance, Italian mandolin and contemporary folk – and that’s just the first day.
The festival ends with a reggae showcase (6 p.m. Monday, Comcast Mural Amphitheatre) with local groups Jahshiki and Laborer, plus Clinton Fearon with the Boogie Brown Band.
New this year is folk that shares a boundary with indie rock. Folklife is using the newly cleared area close to the Space Needle where the Fun Forest used to be for another big stage. They’re filling it with folk redefined, a genre that includes local bands such as Buffalo Death Beam, Led to Sea and Ravenna Woods. Saturday night’s lineup showcases bands from Olympia’s lo-fi/punk label K Records (7 p.m. Indie Roots stage).
“It’s a lot of independent artists who have played folk but are reinterpreting it,” explains Cunningham, adding that indie folk-rock was a genre the festival was missing before.
But yes, you still can hear geezers with banjos: The Old Time Kitchen Party (3 p.m. Sunday, Northwest Court Stage) is a mash-up of old-time mountain music played by Northwest bands such as Red Dog, Worn Out Shoes and Honey Bucket Bows.
One of the things that makes Folklife different from other big music festivals is its family-friendly nature. Not only is it free with a lot of daytime acts that you can pop in and out of, there are plenty of shows aimed at kids. From activities such as puppet making, trapeze lessons and Indian dress-up (all weekend, Folklife Commons) to drum circles and kids’ jams (various times), there’s fun for everyone. There are storytellers (11 a.m. Sunday, Center House Theatre) and family dances (swing at 4 p.m. Friday and contra at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, both at Center House Court).
New this year – little ones can get their groove on with the best of Seattle’s “Kiddipendent” (kids’ indie) rock bands such as Recess Monkey, Caspar Babypants and The Board of Education (11 a.m. Monday, Fountain Lawn Stage).
Finally, if you get tired of flitting in and out of shows, don’t forget the buskers who dot the paths and parks around the center. It’s Folklife policy that anyone can show up and play outside for tips as long as they abide by noise and positioning rules. The variety is huge each year.
Logistically, it pays to be prepared for Folklife. Parking is near-impossible after midday; festival organizers advise traveling by public transit from other locations. Many buses serve the Center from downtown. Be prepared for crowds because the past two festivals have been shoulder-to-shoulder at peak times during the afternoons. It helps to have water, sunscreen and a jacket just in case, and it’s worth familiarizing yourself with the map of locations beforehand via the website. Paper programs will be handed out at each of the entry points around the center.
Now, go get your folk on, folks.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, firstname.lastname@example.org